7 Books About Words To Up Your Scrabble Skills

by Charlotte Ahlin

Words are fun. Look, being the kid with the big vocabulary might not always be an in with the popular crowd —very few people seem to want to hear that they're misusing the word ironic. But that's not going to stop us from getting a kick out of all the weird and wonderful words out there. I mean, who doesn't want to know what cromnyomancy means? (It means divination by onions, of course.)

There's always some new corner of language to poke around in, whether it's learning obscure new words or hearing the history of an everyday, ordinary word (like how sarcasm comes from a Greek word meaning to tear off the flesh). Did you know that a group of apes is called a shrewdness? Or that there was a real Dr. Mesmer who gave us mesmerized? Or that the word for that cozy spot by the fireplace is inglenook?

Luckily, since no one has time to read straight through the dictionary, there are plenty of wordy books to read when you want to buff up your vocab, or geek out over linguistics, or take your Bananagrams game to the next level. Any true logophile (lover of words) should take a look at these verbose volumes:

1. Thereby Hangs a Tale by Charles Earle Funk

The root of the word school means leisure. The words hearse and rehearse come from the same root, and dunce is named after a great philosopher. Thereby Hangs a Tale: Stories of Curious Word Origins will make you see everyday words in an entirely new, much weirder light. You can read it straight through and fill up on all the strange little word histories, or savor it piece by piece, but either way you'll pick up some truly killer pieces of word trivia.


2. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter

If you thought you'd never find a captivating page-turner about the history of English grammar, think again. John McWhorter manages to make the evolution of syntax into a completely engaging story of Viking conquests and strange Celtic holdovers. McWhorter is able to take something as innocuous as the word "do," and spin it into a centuries-old mystery. Plus, he debunks some of the most irritating grammar "rules" — after reading this book, you'll feel free to boldly split infinitives and end sentences with just as many prepositions as you'd like to.


3. The Insomniac's Dictionary by Paul Hellweg

This, as the title suggests, is the book to read when you're lying awake at night, wondering what the longest word in the English language is. Or the shortest. Or the oddest. The Insomniac's Dictionary features whole chapters on different phobias and manias, words with no vowels, words about insomnia, and even words about words. Guaranteed to make you a Scrabble genius (or at least help you out if you need a "q" word with no "u" in it).


4. The Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson explores the quirks of our ragtag language with humor, wit, and, of course, wordplay. It's the sort of history of the English language where you'll find yourself laughing out loud over paragraphs about the schwa vowel sound. Bryson takes his readers on an upbeat tour of linguistic history, from the descent of the larynx to the invention of slang, highlighting the most absurd and obscure tidbits English has to offer.


5. The Word Circus by Richard Lederer, illustrated by Dave Morice

If you miss the word activity books of your childhood, this one's for you. The Word Circus is full of anagrams, rhymes, palindromes, drawings of kangaroos — really, what more could you want out of a word book? There's a whole section of word games and a plethora of puns. If you need a break from etymological history, this is the perfect dose of lexical nonsense.


6. The Snark Handbook by Lawrence Dorfman

Few things are more satisfying than a well-executed insult. Now, I'm not condoning insulting any of your friends and acquaintances, but the art of the perfect jab is worth pursuing for its own sake. The Snark Handbook: Insult Edition is a clever collection of retorts, snide comments, and put-downs, all worth reading even if you never end up using them. And if you do ever wind up in a situation that warrants a biting comeback, you'll be well prepared.


7. Eats, Shoots & Leaves by Lynne Truss

OK, so this is sort of cheating — Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots & Leaves is really more about punctuation than words themselves. But, if you're going to read one strict punctuation book, let it be this one. Truss is simply so entertaining, even when she's berating you over sloppy comma use. Punctuation is often overlooked, but so much of reading depends on it! A panda who eats shoots and leaves is entirely different from a panda who eats, shoots and leaves, after all.